Why I’m Not Using the Word “Lit”


abby norman -acceptable vernacular3

Hi. My name is Abby and I am super white. Also, I really like to describe things as “lit.” At least I did, until I started thinking about it more critically, and now I don’t. A lot of people think it’s just a silly word, but I’m beginning to think my love of the word “lit” is endemic of something more problematic than a 34-year-old using the language of a 16-year-old.

I was raised in the Midwest and went to a predominantly white church, high school, and college. I knew I was white, but kind of thought of my whiteness as the neutral. I didn’t have to think about it because I didn’t have to. Everything around me was built for me, until it wasn’t.

I moved to Atlanta and began teaching at a predominantly black school. Suddenly, my whiteness became very obvious. As my students liked to point out, I talked like a white girl. I dressed like a white girl. I said things that I thought were totally “normal” that put my students into giggle fits simply because “Ms. Norman you are sooooo white.” I know it seems like it shouldn’t be a revelation with my white name, parents, experiences, and family. But it didn’t really occur to me that there were experiences that were completely different than mine. I figured that out the hard way, but I learned.

As I continued to teach in these communities in Atlanta, I learned to love and emulate them. I noticed the ways my teenage girls tied their scarves and the funky boots they wore. I started listening to the radio stations my students listened to and asked them to share their favorite songs with me. I brought them good old fashioned mid-western funeral potatoes and their grandmothers saved me a piece of sweet potato pie.

On my trips back home, I began to notice that my friends and the teens in my Ohio town were between six months and a year behind my students. The “new” music on the radio I was already sick of. The new way I was tying my scarf that I learned from my students, I taught to my friends. But then, I started noticing something even stranger. The “street” clothes that my students sported would show up the next season at Target. The “new” fashion designs on the Paris runways looked as though they had been inspired by my classroom.

This is not a new phenomenon. It is pretty normal for white culture to essentially mock and punish black culture, until white culture uses it to signify “cool” and “hip.” It is unacceptable until white people do it, then it becomes trendy. Think about men wearing skinny jeans. Years before all the hipsters in the praise band at my mostly white church were wearing them, my students were doing it. Same with the big glasses, the certain sneakers, and some of the language. “Lit” is one of those words that is moving into “acceptable vernacular.”

I want the word “lit” to be “acceptable” because the people who invented it and use it often are fully accepted.

I want classically black ways of speaking, dressing, and being to be respected as a really beautiful cultural choice and not as a trend to be consumed by white people. I don’t want black ways of being to be signals to other white people that I am cool. I don’t want my former students, neighbors, or friends to be reduced to things that other cultures can consume for our own entertainment and value. I especially don’t want to be doing all of that while their blackness is being used as an excuse to treat them as though they are not fully human.

I don’t want to use the word “lit” to be cool and hip and fun, while my friends are being denigrated for using “not even a real word” but currently, that is exactly what is happening. So yeah, I sound like a cheesy 1953 cartoon, but for now things at my house are “cool” and “neat” and “great,” but they aren’t “lit.” If we can’t respect it out of the black community, then I don’t want it either. Far too often big and small things have been mocked or been discarded because they were signifiers of being black, but then white people used them and they were relevant and accepted. I don’t want to be a part of that cycle. I don’t want anything to do with it. I know it seems really small, but this is the thing I can do. I will not be using the word “lit.” I wish that I could, but I can’t. I don’t want to be part of the problem anymore.